“Christmas Bells” / Luke 2 / 24 December 2016
Good evening and Merry Christmas to you! May the hope of this season, its wonder, its peace, find a home in you. And long after the Christmas decorations have started to look ragged, after they’ve returned to their long sleep in the attic, when the featureless weeks of winter drag on, when you awaken perhaps to a day that is marked for sorrow, or boredom, or fear, may the abiding joy and promise of this season—the mystery that you have touched in this place—be your strength. The sentimental longings that we feel at Christmas…they come from somewhere. There is a dream that is worth dreaming, even if its fullness always eludes us. There is a vision that is worth pursuing, one of goodwill and peace on earth. There’s a world that ought to be, if it is not. Yes, our Christmas yearnings come from somewhere. They bear echoes of an unseen faraway home, a truth our hearts remember…if our minds do not. At Christmastime, with all its complicated mix of emotions and expectations, what we’re really hoping for is a world set aright, mended, made whole—the world inside of us and the one without. Please God, let it be!
Through an unfortunate flurry of PTA-style events, I awoke on a recent Saturday morning to learn that I was scheduled to stand outside the Bridgeville K-Mart and ring a bell for the Salvation Army—that very day. I’d like to blame my wife, but that wouldn’t be a very Christmassy thing to do. My eleven-year old daughter, Greta, is a member of a South Fayette social service club and, well, minding the red kettle in 24 degrees was our lot. When we arrived, we were given a small bell to ring—much smaller than the Salvation Army bells I recall hearing as a child, with a far less pleasing chime. This bell? It didn’t peel, or knell, or toll. It was nothing like the cutting, heart-stopping sound made by the bell they ring in coffee hour to signal the start of adult education. No, this little bell…tinkled. It sounded almost apologetic, barely audible, as if to say, “Oh, we know we’re a nuisance. We know that you don’t carry cash anymore. But this is a Christmas tradition, so let’s just make it as bearable as we can.” Tinkle. Tinkle, tinkle. It’s amazing how invisible you become when people know you’re asking for money! I stood there and played my panflute, in the ambitious hope that it would make folks more generous—“Good King Wenceslas” over and over. All it really did was make me feel like a subway performer, a really mediocre one. But it was fascinating to watch how people reacted to the red kettle and the tiny tinkling bell. Most people became self-conscious and walked with a determined gait straight past us, being careful not to make eye contact. Many people stopped to see if they had any change or cash to spare. A few paused to promise us a contribution on their way back out. I think most of them somehow felt judged unless they paid their dues, as if the bald guy with the panflute and the eleven-year old kid were the very eyes of God. But we were not judging anyone. Mostly we were just wondering if we’d lose a toe to frostbite.
The tinkling of the bell was hypnotic. And it occurred to me that the only “Christmas bells” most of us have ever heard are Salvation Army bells, peeling on street corners. Oh, there’s much talk about bells at Christmas. “Ding dong, merrily on high, Christmas bells are ringing. Silver bells, silver bells, it’s Christmastime in the city. I heard the bells on Christmas Day their old familiar carols play. Look daddy, teacher says, ‘Every time a bell rings an angel gets its wings’.” They’re a much-loved symbol of the season, bells. And yet, I’ve never really lived in a place where bells were rung on Christmas Day. Have you?
Somehow these legendary bells stand for something more than mere…bells. My first year in Africa, I made a Christmas tree out of palm branches and decorated it with paper snowflakes. The irony wasn’t wasted on me. The day before Christmas, two little girls came to my door with machetes and asked if they could cut down the one evergreen shrub on the property to take it home and make it into a proper Christmas tree. I didn’t have the heart to refuse them. They were longing for a Christmas world other than the one they knew, a world of snow and pine trees, a world perhaps of peace and goodwill. For most of us, really, that’s all Christmas bells are. They’re the same as figgy pudding, and sleigh rides, and yule logs, and sugar plums, and gingerbread—(yes, we all know what gingerbread is, but who would honestly eat that stuff when there’s chocolate chip?) These fictitious or historical trappings of Christmas are just shadows, hinting at another world, one we all desire. These things are all images of another world, as are angels for that matter; they’re things we’ve never really known but that set us to dreaming of a life we’d love to regain, a good world no longer ours, the Eden from which we’ve been exiled.
Truly, that little Salvation Army bell did ring out the song of the better world, in its soft and jingling way. “Share what you’ve got,” it said. “Give to the poor. Life isn’t about what’s in your pockets. Be generous.” It’s a past innocence that we all try to recapture at Christmas, a simpler life of wonder and belief, a paradise seemingly lost to adults. It’s the innocence of a baby that we desire, the faith that a single child can change everything for us. Oh, but you! You with your own losses and hopes! You with your own little bundle of joy and despair! Don’t you know that sometimes we hear echoes of a faraway home that our souls remember if our minds do not? Your longings come from somewhere. There is a world that ought to be…and can be. We’ve heard its bells sometimes clanging in our hearts, sometimes merely tinkling. But real! Real nonetheless—these shadows, the hopes and fears of all the years. This is God’s dream for our world, and in our deepest heart of hearts it is the dream of every person: Peace on earth, goodwill to all. Please God, let it be. In our relationships, in our attitudes, in our old fears and our new years, let it be. Amen.